Bids and proposals

Business proposals: start where the reader is

3 minute read

So you’ve done the legwork. Over the last six months, you’ve bashed the phone till your ears hurt, driven more miles and eaten at more roadside cafes than you care to remember.

And you’ve spent hours carefully building a relationship with your prospect, all to get them to the point where they are ready to buy. All you have to do now is write the proposal and it’ll be in the bag.

You feel relieved – and justifiably so. After all, you’ve worked hard. So the proposal is just a formality, right?

Wrong. Even if you’re the only supplier in the frame, never forget that many sales founder at this crucial stage. And often they do so for one simple reason: the supplier forgets the reader.


The danger of skipping ahead

Puffed up with a positive mental attitude, and bolstered by upbeat conversations with the prospect, they compile a dossier that undoes all their hard work.

There’s an old joke about a salesman who stops his car by a country road and asks a farmer for directions. The farmer pauses for a second, puffs out his cheeks and then says, shaking his head, ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here.’

OK, so perhaps it’s not the funniest joke in the world. But it does illustrate a point that many proposal writers forget: your reader can only start their thought process from where it is when they happen to read what you send them – and that could be anywhere.

Yes, they may well have been feeling quite generous and positive about your offering when you last spoke to them. But anything could have happened since then.

They may have had a call from a rival supplier, who sowed the seeds of doubt about the wisdom of giving you the business. They may have reviewed their budget and forgotten that actually it makes more financial sense (as you know it does) to spend it with you than to keep it in the bank. Or they may simply have had a bad journey into work or a bad night’s sleep.


Start where they are

Whatever the reason, you have to take them through a logical sales argument all over again, and that means starting from where they are now.

This doesn’t mean leaping in with how great you are as a company, even if you do have a fistful of testimonials to back up your assertion. And it certainly doesn’t mean starting (as a prospective supplier to Emphasis did recently) with your terms and conditions – that is, three pages of reasons not to do business with you.

No, what it means is safe, non-contentious information: their current situation, in other words. It might not be very sexy. But it does mean you’ll get them nodding in agreement, as they realise that you’ve clearly been listening to what they told you and that you understand where they’re coming from.


Writing for all audiences

This is even more important if your proposal will be read by influencers or decision-makers who have never met you and haven’t had the benefit of all that relationship building. It’s critical that you get these people on side too if you’re to stand a chance of winning the business.

And then, with all of them nodding and knowing that you clearly know what you’re talking about, you can lead them towards the sale with your persuasive sales argument.

Do that, and all that hard work won’t have been in vain.


Image credit: Tom Wang / Shutterstock


Bids and proposals

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Rob Ashton is the founder of Emphasis and posts mainly about writing and the brain – a topic he's been researching for seven years. You can read more of his work in Writing Matters – our weekly bulletin of career-building writing advice backed by science.

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